Kohl’s, Black Friday, and the Sad, Sad State of Retail

If you listen to Kevin Mansell, CEO of Kohl’s, Black Friday at his department store chain went great.

“That is really delivering on the objective we had,” he told Fortune, “which is to drive people into stores and give them another experience they don’t get somewhere else.”

I was in Kohl’s on Black Friday. It was certainly an experience, but not one I ever want to repeat.

I live in New York City. This was, believe it or not, my first visit to a Kohl’s. (I still have yet to set foot in a Walmart.) But I was in New Jersey and needed some new pairs of jeans. My mother-in-law suggested Kohl’s; they sell pants for $20, she said. This intrigued me; you can’t find $20 jeans online. So off we went.

Kohl’s turned me off from the first minute I got there. Outside was a sign announcing that it would open on Thanksgiving at 5 p.m. and stay open through the night. I kept thinking of the poor workers who have to give up their holiday dinner to net a few stray shoppers.

Considering Kohl’s had all those workers there all night, the place was a mess. The piles of clothes all seemed well picked-through, and no one had bothered to straighten them out.

This would have been understandable if the store was a mob scene. But it was mostly empty. There were people there, but it didn’t seem different from the weekend crowd in any department store. (And, aside from kids, I didn’t see anyone under 30.)

The jeans rack had a bunch of different signs. One advertised the regular price ($40), another the sale price ($30), and it wasn’t clear which one applied. The jeans themselves sported a mess of tags and stickers. So it wasn’t completely clear how much each pair cost.

There was not one helper around to help me puzzle that out. I needed to go to the checkout to figure how much my items cost. I did pick up a few pairs of jeans, but not as many as I intended.

There were only two women working the registers. Even though the store wasn’t particularly crowded, a long line of shoppers had to wait about 15 minutes to buy their items. Let’s not forget: Kohl’s is competing with e-tailers, where checkout is instantaneous. Any sizable wait is inexcusable.

The irony is: with the 25 percent discount I received from signing up for a credit card (which I likely will never use again), the jeans did, in fact, come out to $20! One pair came out to $16! Quite a deal. If I knew that, I would have bought more.

The woman at the cash register was helpful and super-friendly and smiled a lot through the lengthy credit card approval process. That was the only part of the visit that wasn’t a turn-off.

I listen to a lot of retail executives talk about how they want to make their stores an experience, how they want to go omnichannel, etc. And yet when you go to these stores, they are the same old subpar experience. Sometimes it’s even worse because margins are so low in retail the companies aren’t investing in their stores.

Online has caused tremendous disruption for retailers. But right now it only constitutes less than 10 percent of overall sales. What’s going to happen when that percentage grows?

This is crunch time. Retailers can’t continue to deliver mediocre experiences, never mind bad ones. It’s time for everyone to up their game. That’s certainly true for Kohl’s. If it does, it may even be able to charge more than $20 for jeans.

(Image from Wikipedia)

JCK News Director

6 responses to “Kohl’s, Black Friday, and the Sad, Sad State of Retail”

  1. Powerful article Rob. All brick and mortar retailers should take heed. Really have to leverage the unique opportunities they have to deliver value around the in-store experience. The majority of shoppers still prefer it. But negative experiences like you describe only serve to drive more shoppers to the online space.

  2. Powerful article, parts I agree with, parts I don’t. No store should be open on Thanksgiving Day, pure greed, period. Perhaps you missed the point here though. Maybe the reason there was not much help around was because signing up to work is voluntary. Not everyone has the big family and the turkey dinner to come home to on Thanksgiving, and the holidays can be some of the loneliest times of the year for some. I assure you, the workers that were there (besides management, of course) were there because they either needed the money, wanted the company, or both. I’m not a Kohl’s shopper either, although I did buy there when I was down on my luck. It helped me get by Rob, when I got a new job and needed a new wardrobe, rather than going the $75 shirt route that I could not afford at the time. I’m in a good place now and I do shop elsewhere for better grade goods these days, but I’d suggest in the future you take the time to consider the fact that these kinds of stores do serve a purpose for people with limited funds, and that goes for the comment about WalMart as well. However, you are 100% right about the experience itself: even the higher end stores can’t seem to get that part right. Half the time, I can’t find anyone there to help me either, and for the most part, that is not much better over all than what you described. The signage and the neatness, and for the most part, the quality is better, but they certainly still have a very long way to go. I hope it’s not too late.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think it’s great that a place like Kohl’s offers affordable items; as I mentioned, that’s what attracted me there. I’m not too proud to wear $20 jeans. I would also happily go to a Walmart; i just haven’t yet. This Kohl’s was in a suburban area and the crowd didn’t too seem too down-market; my mother-in-law met her doctor there. But to me, the point is you can get cheap things online too. Kohl’s needs a reason to get people in the store. I understand that it’s a discounter, and that’s fine, but a department store shouldn’t look like a flea market. Just because your customers are looking for deals, or lack money, that doesn’t mean you can’t do basic merchandising or make them wait on long lines. As far as working Thanksgiving, this is a relatively new phenomenon. While working on Black Friday is an old tradition in retail, working the holiday is not. Many malls are starting to close because they don’t want employees to be force to work that day. And considering Kohl’s was short-handed on Black Friday, it probably should have spent its energy staffing up for the big day instead of on Thanksgiving.

      • I agree on all points sir well put. Thanks for the reply and for giving us the platform to express our thoughts. Few places and people like you seldom do. Happy Holidays my friend.
        Dan Dennis
        Austin, Tex

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